"Running Your Own Race" with Christopher McBride
Christopher McBride and I met around 2007 when I was visiting mutual friends at Northern Illinois University. Ten years later, we find ourselves in New York, finer versions of the people we once were and forging our destinies. McBride and I meet in the afternoon, having our own happy hour in the Bed-Stuy apartment he shares with his wife, Chyealla, and their two cats, Jasmine and Belle. I craft cocktails while we chit chat about his playlist, maximizing our living spaces, married life, and what liquor we refuse to drink. Once the warm and fuzzies have hit us in all the right places, McBride and I begin to dig into his journey as a musician and educator.
Describe yourself for someone who has never heard of you.
For someone who has never heard of me, I would describe myself as an independent musician, educator, composer, and arranger. That is what I put on my business card, because I do so many things besides play music.
You are doing all of these things right now, and these all pay the bills. We wear many different hats as artists.
A majority of what I [earn] comes from playing. I do teach and that also can cover some different things. I work for Jazz at Lincoln Center.
What do you do with them?
I work for their middle schools. I teach private lessons to the middle school students, but I have also done clinics for them and different invitationals, judging different competitions. In June, I'm going to Bogota, to work with educators on how they can be better teachers.
Talk about what it was like being a young person, discovering wanting to be a musician, how you got there.
I think there were these moments leading to me wanting to be a musician. I remember I was teaching when I was fifteen, and the kid kinda got whatever I was talking about and I thought 'That's a nice feeling!' and I could see myself doing that. So I actually went to school for music education, graduated with my degree in 2008.
From NIU, right?
Yeah, from NIU. When I was fourteen, I heard Kinda Blue and I was like 'dude I really would love to do that.' And then I went overseas in high school. [Our] jazz band went to London, and I was actually talking to another musician who was on tour out there, and it wasn't a jazz cat, just a cat on tour. It was some group poppin' at the time. 'We're in London, then Thailand and Istanbul after that.' And I was like, ‘YO! I can make money doing this? That would be dope.’ I got back and asked my friends what they did, and I [realized I] could be either [in Chicago] doing nothing or I could be overseas making money, playing music...It started with little moments like that.
What was it about hearing Kind of Blue that took your heart away?
It was all the different emotions of that project. I tell people all the time, I was bawling from hearing that album. My God. I felt like it just captured the loneliness and joyfulness and happiness and helplessness. All these little subtleties and nuances of emotion in the music and that really [felt] amazing to sit and vibe out. Then you talk about the chord structure...I was fifteen listening to Cannonball like 'What is this?!' Just everything about it, man. It just got me to dive into the music.
So when did you begin playing?
About age 10.
Were your parents encouraging of your music?
My dad was not at first. He is from Roatán, this island in Honduras. Every musician he saw was broke, or they were just playing on the corner. So he was like, 'why would you want to do all of this to play on a corner?' And I was like 'well that's not the goal.' [laughs] But I remember in college I had a gig, and he's like, where you going, and I told him, and he was like man, you going to make a lil’ money, and I was like I'm making $500 in this gig!' and he was like ‘You makin' $500? For how many hours?’ and I was like ‘TWO!’ He was like, ‘alright.’ Once he saw that it could be lucrative, then he was more supportive about it.
Why did you go to college for Music Ed rather than performance?
I enjoyed teaching and I wanted to make sure that I could do it as on high a level as possible. I didn't know what would ultimately be the goal, but I wanted to be able to teach at a high level.
What age do you think you can have the most impact as an educator?
My overall goal would be to teach at the college level if I were to get a full-time job in the future. I like teaching private lessons. It really doesn't matter what age they are, if they want to learn and grow. That's all I care about.
Define culture and how you fit into that definition.
A culture is fine arts, music, dance, comedy. You know, and then you have subgenres, like food, desserts.
Yeah, 'I'm going to find the best ice cream out there!' And they do. I love ice cream.
More than cocktails?
Eh, it's a hard one. Depending on the day. If it was a hot summer day, then do you want a cocktail or ice cream?
A boozy milkshake?
See Vanity, this is why we click. [laughs]
I guess I try to bring my take on culture. It's about how I was feeling and what's going on at the time. When people come to a show and hear my music, like the thought process. I also try to be engaging, and I think the audience can connect better when they know where you are coming from when you wrote [a] song. Here is this instrumental, and you have no idea where this is coming from. I always tell people why I wrote a song and what it's about so that they can be there and feel and be a part of the show as it's happening.
How do you define success, and how has it changed over the years?
I used to define success as traveling around the world, playing, making music, maybe being famous. ‘That's the horn player behind blah blah blah,’ or ‘that's the horn player that released__.’ I used to define success that way. Now, I'm doing everything that I wanted to do, which is great. Now it's about higher levels. I wanted a residency, and I wanted to play with vocals but they play standards that most instrumentalists don't play. That is how the concept started with some of my gigs. “Singer meets Saxophonists” on Sundays, 7-10pm, at Minton's Playhouse. I travel and make money playing, people have recognized me.
I've only had one [album] as a leader, but have played on many others. I define success now as having the option to say no, if I want to. I don’t want to be a 'guy who pays the bill' kind of guy. I want to take gigs that further what I'm doing.
I'm pretty cool with Casey Benjamin, and when I see him playing, I notice that he is always having a good time. That's because he just does what he wants to do as opposed to doing stuff to pay a bill. That's how I define success now. Doing what I want to do when I want to do it.
What were some moments that were critical to your professional development?
Professionally, I would say, when I was in Chicago, I went to a jam session. There were a lot of great musicians there, and I was nervous, but I was going to do my best. All of them, great saxophonists, all of them packed up and left. I thought ‘Did I just beast everyone on accident?’ Just having the confidence that I could do it is when I turned into a professional, 2007. When I left the practice room and hit the stage.
[a moment that was critical to my personal development] was my dad coming around. I remember when I first told my parents back in 2003, I don’t want a regular job this summer, I want to do things only music related, my mom was like ‘are you sure?’ and my dad said ‘Let the boy do it!’ [laughs] The fact that he thought I could do it made me feel like I can do it. Sometimes, people not believing in you fuels you, too.
Have you had that?
I had a professor who didn't want me to be an educator. He didn't think I was going to be good, and I found that hilarious.
Was he worried about your rapport with young people?
He didn't like me. It was a personal thing. I think in some ways I can be...I can be, a lot.
You can be ‘extra?’
[laughs] I can be extra, but I'm always respectful. Especially to adults. I was loud. I was comfortable.
What are some of your dream projects or collaborations?
[Working with] electronic pedals. I'm so technologically deficient. I would say the dream…I would like to write a symphony. That would be a dream, I haven't started, but I have the concept. A jazz symphony.
What have you learned about yourself over the years?
I've learned how to be well-rounded, engage in conversation, learning rather than walking away. I feel like New York has brought out other aspects of being human that I hadn't been paying attention to. I've [also] confirmed what I've already thought I knew, which is that if I'm in a situation when I have to sink or swim, I'm definitely going to swim. I personally do better when I am surrounded by people who push me to do better, you know? I started exercising for the first time ever, consistently, and I never thought I would actually like the gym. I like the gym, and I like exercising. It's been music since I was little.
You were never a gym rat?
I wasn’t an exercise anything! Now I’m comfortable in a gym and have friends that push each other musically, compositionally, and with exercise. It’s turned me into a person who likes to exercise. Some people are healthy and ‘I'm fat and this is who I am.’ But no, this doesn't have to be who you are.
When is a time that you failed?
I was supposed to graduate the year before [in 2007], and I just started working as a musician and hadn't understood the balance of getting to gigs and getting to school. [laughs] My parents said 'we paid for this amount of classes, and you are exceeding this amount.’ So I had to pay for my last semester. Worked gigs and earned money. It’s something I really wish wasn’t the case.
What insecurities have you overcome?
Ignoring other people and their development. I tell students all the time, because now you are in the age of social media. 'I'm going on tour with blah, blah, blah, and I'm doing this.' And you can be like 'I want to be on tour, I want to do that.' And you could doubt yourself.
Like 'Why am I not doing that?'
Exactly. 'Maybe I’m not as good as them.' Now I am at a point where I have tunnel vision. When jockeys run races, they put blinders on the horses. And that is a big thing I dealt with...running my own race. ‘What do I need to do to get better?’ The only race I want to run is against myself.
What are some opportunities for exploration in jazz?
I wish there was a DJ on the radio who was a jazz personality. Someone who was like ‘This record is hot. I really dig it, I hope you like it, too.’ When you're excited about it, other people get excited about it. Enthusiasm catches. I want people to take it seriously, but you still have to be drawn to it. That's why people aren't as drawn to it. You can't even get people to say ‘I just like this song’ if you can't get people.
What do you want your legacies to be, both professional and personal?
Professionally, I don't want to be known as a jazz musician. I want to be known as a good musician. Just doing arrangements for different artists and possibly going on tour with a horn section. Being known that whatever I did, it made an impression on somebody.
Personally, I want to be known as somebody that if 'you call Chris or needed Chris he is a man of his word. He did what he said he was going to do. There for you if you are down or up. A great person to party with, to cry on. He was dependable.'
What is something you wish for yourself?
I just want to be a holistic person, and it's going to be a goal for the rest of my life.
And for your family?
For my wife, Chyealla, I want her to be content. As long as she's content and we're making money and able to pay our bills, then we're good. She just wants to be comfortable. I feel like she has done so much already...that I am at a point where I want to make sure she is good for the rest of her life and doesn't have to worry about anything.
What do you wish for the Southside [of Chicago], and Bed-Stuy?
Any community that has culture in it, I think that the community is going to thrive. And I hope that, especially for the Southside, that they add more cultural events. A lot of times people just don't know where to go. Whether it be art, music, whatever little sub-genres we talked about, that the more people are involved culturally, the better the neighborhood could be. The same with Bed-Stuy. Really, it's about these kids, even I recognize that. It's about the youth. Giving them something to do, making sure they're not out causing trouble. Not everybody who isn't doing anything is, but the more options you have the less likely you are to make decision that could be poor. If I didn't have music as a kid, I think I could've possibly made choices that were more detrimental to my development. I think culture helps with that, not to say that it's the end-all, be-all, but I think it does help.
It shapes people.
It definitely shaped me.
And the world. What do you wish or hope for?
I hope that people are able to carry out positive dreams. I think that love is always going to conquer hate. I think when people focus on positivity they focus on their goals, and they achieve those goals. Positive goals! Some people's goals are like "I want to invade this country!" and [some] people [are] focused on making their communities better. Out of all this stuff that has happened in the world, there is still so much room for all of us to be better. Which I find to be fascinating. How good can we be as a world? That's something that I look forward to seeing as I get older and grow as a human. How much better can I be? How much better can the world be? Just thinking about our current President, if that's the lowest it could be, what's the highest it could be?